Chile Everything from Congers to Lamb

Chilean cuisine is currently in the limelight. While time-tested recipes are enjoying a new vogue, gourmet cuisine is making inroads with innovative menus created with traditional ingredients.

By  Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Cortesía ProChile

There is something intimidating about haute cuisine. It is not immediately easy to grasp —unlike a simple dish of rice and stewed meat and mixed vegetables— so it can be a little disconcerting for an inexperienced palate. This is complicated by the fact that you need to know that an ingredient can appear under several different names.

But gourmet cuisine is also surprising and captivating. To begin with, gourmet cuisine requires cooking skills, and some of us can’t manage more than pasta with tomato sauce. Haute cuisine requires years of study, innovation, and a far-reaching spirit of inquiry; without such a spirit, pasta is just a floury concoction, but a spirit of inquiry gives us perfectly-prepared Humboldt squid fettuccini dressed with a sauce of champagne and grated nuts. Such an idea would not occur to very many people, but it did occur to Chilean chef Álvaro Romero.

Romero was named Chile’s “Breakout Chef 2015” by the magazine Wikén and the Circle of Food and Wine Writers. His name began to make the rounds of the demanding food community thanks to the spotlight on the Chilean cuisine served at the Europeo, an iconic restaurant known for its exacting standards.

He was also our guide when I traveled from southern to northern Chile with a group of journalists over a two-week period —from late September to early October 2016— intended to introduce them to the abundance, quality, and uniqueness of the products and cuisine of this country at the southern end of the Americas.

Without Romero, we would never have noticed prickly heath, a shrub that grows on the extreme southern tip of Chile. Traditionally used as an ornamental plant, prickly heath (Gaultheria mucronata) produces a small fruit about the size of a gooseberry. The mission to rescue products from the Chilean countryside has led chefs to rediscover the gastronomic possibilities of the fruit, which stars in some of the dishes that formed part of a lavish dinner at Boragó.

Boragó is one of the best-known haute cuisine restaurants in Chile. Located in Vitacura, a precinct of the city of Santiago, the restaurant’s first surprise is the simplicity of the façade: no one would imagine that it hides a cornucopia of wonders. The second surprise is that the food is prepared under the watchful gaze of the diners, who await their orders as spectators to a process in which the flowers of the bromeliad known as chagual (Puya chilensis) become ingredients of a sea star platter, and volcanic-looking rocks embrace a soup of spinach and seaweed.

The Boragó local menu seeks to paint a picture of Chile: a thread of pebre —a salsa similar to pico de gallo— winds through its fifteen dishes; mushrooms from the coastal community of Quintay and potatoes from the Chiloé archipelago are served, along with the traditional roast lamb; grapevines are fashioned into plates; and there is even cuchuflí, those beloved tubular desserts filled with caramel, but presented at Boragó with all the refinement and exquisiteness of haute cuisine.

Chile, a string bean of a country that stretches 2,672 miles, was the most sparsely populated country in South America until the 16th century. The country’s cuisine emerged from a fusion of indigenous products (corn, potatoes, beans, squash, chiles), new ingredients and culinary techniques brought by the Spanish conquistadors, and the influence of French culinary traditions, which introduced new recipes in the late 19th century.

History tells us that the first colonizers of Chile had to content themselves with limited rations of rancid bacon and spoiled cheese. Hernando de Magallanes’ men, for example, arrived in the New World with a very restricted selection of foodstuffs: hardtack, dried fish, bacon, raisins, figs, and a little rice and sugar. Such a diet led to rampant scurvy. Over time, the Spaniards grew accustomed to the foods growing in the new lands, and while they continued to import products like olives, olive oil, and beef —at least until they established herds of their own in Chile— corn soon became an essential item on their tables, as did potatoes and beans.

The best place to enjoy the mestizo cuisine that developed during the process of colonization is the La Mensajería restaurant in the Providencia neighborhood in the city of Santiago. It is a small modern venue, established two years ago to serve “authentic Chilean food,” in the words of Executive Chef Rodrigo Jofré.

“We offer traditional Chilean preparations, not interpretations,” he added, as the country’s culinary history began to spread across our table: chips made from Chiloé potatoes; both baked and fried turnovers filled with spinach and goat cheese, cheese and mushrooms, chicken, and pork or spicy sausage;  a delightful quinoa salad of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, rucola, watercress, quinoa, and avocado; hot cornbread to chase away the cold; and a piece of conger eel, accompanied by fried eggs and potatoes (in other words, “poor man’s” conger). And the desserts! We had leche asada (similar to flan), chirimoya alegre (pieces of custard apple in orange juice), and the famous mote con huesillo (honey with wheat and dried peaches).

The best part of our La Mensajería experience was a visit to La Vega, Chile’s central market, in the company of the chef. Stalls overflowed with dried fruit, corn of many colors, peppers of all sizes, asparagus, citrus fruit, mangos, myriad varieties of avocado, grapes, pears, cape gooseberries, mushrooms, vegetables of all kinds, chicken and quail eggs, olives… You need a lot of time to enjoy the feast for the senses and ode to diversity that is La Vega.

Very far from there, in the cold of Patagonia, Luis Ovando is working on increasing that diversity. A resident of the precinct of San Gregorio in the province of Magallanes, Ovando has battled the harsh climate for some time. He manages to coax miracles from the seemingly sterile earth: cilantro, parsley, chard, spinach, garlic, potatoes, carrots, strawberries, currants, blackberries, and raspberries. Everything is farmed as organically as possible, because the Estancia Santa Julia —the family business— is a devoted partner in the movement toward the healthy and the natural. In the beginning, said Ovando, they grew only enough outdoor crops for their own consumption, but the harvests were small because the winds and low temperatures killed many of the crops. “Little by little we moved away from conventional farming into organic agriculture,” added Ovando, an agronomic engineer.

The Estancia Santa Julia has become a model farm in the area: they fight insects with pastes of garlic, nettles, and plant-based repellents; the capricious pampas wind is circumvented by the use of windbreaks and greenhouses; they have turned to the use of raised beds, nourishing them with soil, leaves, and guano; the grass is “mowed” by sheep; the earth is turned over by pigs; and associate crops help increase yields.

These new ways of cultivating the land are ideal for a country with such a range of climates and topography, and this has made Chile a great agricultural and agroindustrial producer. Chile is the world’s largest exporter of grapes, blueberries, cherries, and plums, as well as dried apples, mussels, and frozen salmon fillets. The country also exports frozen turkey parts, hazelnuts, raisins, nuts, seaweed, and salt, with the current goal being to seek the fashionable and prestigious “designation of origin” for its products.

After all, the origin explains many things. A lowland coffee is not the same as a highland coffee, nor do wines from Chile’s various wine-growing regions of Santa Cruz, Casa Blanca, Maipo, Colchagua, and Maule taste the same. As cognoscenti know, quality, flavor, and texture depend on the geographic environment where each product is produced, transformed, and finished.

This may be why roasted lamb had such a unique flavor in the Torres del Paine Park at the foot of the mountains on the country’s southern tip. Eating lamb in a city restaurant is not the same as savoring it after helping to cook it outdoors in air so cold your breath fogs, while standing next to a fire and listening to a gaucho strum his guitar and sing that you must learn to wrestle the wind in order to survive here.